A Professor Adapts His Invention for Popping Ears as a Potential Treatment for COVID-19 Symptoms

May 19, 2020

Presidential Professor Shlomo Silman, saddened by coronavirus deaths in New York, sought a way to help.

The EarPopper and Professor Shlomo Silman (inset)
The EarPopper and Professor Shlomo Silman (inset)

Possibly nothing during the pandemic has been harder for many New Yorkers than standing by while the virus strikes family, friends, and neighbors. Faculty, students, and administrators within The Graduate Center community have sought ways to help and show gratitude, whether by donating equipment and supplies to hospitals, sending food to nurses, or taking part in the nightly expressions of support for health care workers and first responders.

Some Graduate Center researchers have drawn on their areas of expertise to develop potential treatments for the coronavirus. Presidential Professor Shlomo Silman (GC/Brooklyn, Audiology and Speech and Hearing Sciences/Speech Communication Arts & Sciences), a co-developer of a biomedical device called the EarPopper, recently came up with a way to adapt his invention to potentially alleviate the breathing difficulties caused by COVID-19.

The EarPopper is currently used as a treatment for middle ear fluid and associated hearing loss. The mechanism is simple: An influx of high pressure air into the nose, via one nostril, forces the Eustachian tube in the middle ear to open. The device was developed in 2006 by Silman and his co-creator, an otolaryngologist at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, who received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate its efficacy.

The idea of using the device to treat symptoms of COVID-19 came to Silman after an extended period of reflection. “I was thinking how to convert the device into something that will help breathing,” he says. He realized that forcing the air to go into the lungs, rather than the middle ear, might make breathing easier. He modified the device to emit more air and made it possible to couple devices if extra air flow is needed. 

After trying the modified version of the device on friends, and giving it a try himself, he contacted Innovia, the company that manufactures the EarPopper and sells it around the world. Innovia is willing to contribute 4,000 modified EarPoppers, at a minimal cost to labor, to be used for assistance in breathing, Silman says. (Silman has no financial interest in the endeavor.)

“I truly wanted to do something to help,” Silman says. Like other researchers throughout CUNY, his lab is currently closed. “It’s been so difficult for me to sit at home while hearing about so many deaths.”

“Professor Silman’s work exemplifies the spirit of The Graduate Center,” says Joshua Brumberg, dean for the sciences. “We pride ourselves on the ingenuity of our faculty and the ways that they contribute in times of great need by drawing on their expertise. Professor Silman’s project characterizes this ethos and tradition.”